[This article was published in CircusMagazine #41 – December 2014]
[Author: Filip Tielens – Photography: Jan Castermans – Translation: Craig Weston]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – Please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum for more information]
A sunny Sunday morning and I travel to Keerbergen, where the Wiener Circus have put up their big top across from the old mills. It is the last day that Katleen Ravoet will play with them, at the end of a five-week contract as part of the program “Young Blood in the Tent,” a project initiated by Circuscentrum to stimulate an exchange between contemporary circus and the traditional nomadic companies. Katleen is especially known for her work with the companies Les Triplets and Le Cirque du Platzak, but she also has two solo acts, one of which she has been performing in the big show of the Wiener Circus. This traditional family circus under the direction of Ricky Cannone began in 1965, and is the oldest traveling circus in Flanders.
As I shuffle into the warm tent, I’m welcomed by three heavily made-up ladies and a gentleman in a shiny suit. I realise that the last time I went to the traditional circus must have been when I was in primary school. I’m curious if what I am about to see will confirm my expectations. To say the turnout is good for this Sunday morning show would be a slight exaggeration. My count comes to 45 spectators in the largely empty tent, but the low turnout doesn’t seem to spoil the party. The red velvet, the decorations and lamps strung up between the poles, create a warm and welcoming atmosphere. Selfies are taken left and right before the performance, and grown-up women are clearly feeling like kids again. As things begin I notice how flashy the light installation is. After a trumpet solo from the director Ricky Cannone one act after another passes the review, without much narrative or exposition. What stays with me are the acts with the jumping and dancing dogs, the hula-hoop lady, the crossbow duo Varan, and the artist who swings bits of material around all of his limbs. There are a lot of lesser moments: the scenes with the circling ponies, the song numbers and the badly acted “birds and the bees” number are particularly tedious. Somewhere halfway through the first part Katleen Ravoet appears. She does one handstand after the other and holds her body in balance until her arms come just short of trembling. In the end, two hours of circus is a long time to be sitting, even if you do receive sufficient thrills for your money.
After the show I talk with Katleen and Ricky in the autumn sun. During our conversation, some of the members of the circus are already busy preparing the posters for the next series of performances, because after Keerbergen the circus will pack up and move the whole show to Overijse. Only Katleen will no longer travel along. After five weeks of touring its time for an evaluation. “It wasn’t as if I didn’t know what I was getting into when I said yes to the offer from the Circuscentrum,” Katleen says. “Even if I had never seen a performance from the Wiener Circus, I know Ricky since we did a project together at Cirkus in Beweging in Leuven. During my studies I went on tour for three months with Twister Circus, a nomad company from Catalonia. There are many similarities between them and Wiener Circus, but on big difference is that Ricky a whole lot kinder and friendlier than the boss of Twister Circus. That man was very strict with his employees and really shouted some of them down.” Ricky would never act that way, he explains. “Solidarity is important. A circus works much more smoothly when everyone is in a good mood and there are no internal conflicts. Don’t forget we live together, huh. We don’t have a nine-to-five job from which we go home, with a break from each other until the next day. Everyone lives in a caravan on the terrain where the tents are built up. Most people in this circus are actually family of mine. We just adopted Katleen into the family for a month or so (laughs).” Katleen: “The other artists are here with their families. Sometimes I went home to sleep, but usually I stayed here like everyone else in a trailer. Because I was here alone, I was often lonely. The artists and the whole team were very open to my temporary stay with the Wiener Circus.” Ricky: “Katleen is of course a very social person (laughs).” Katleen: “There were only a few here who saw me as an intruder, because they thought I was taking work away from artists of true circus families. I found it difficult at times to make contact with the others because of the language. Most of the artists and team speak Italian or Portuguese, only a few of them speak Dutch. That didn’t make my integration any easier.”
“I feel more at home in the performance now than when I began,” Katleen explains. “During the long tour my number grew as well. Usually we play twice a day. In the beginning I had little contact with the audience, but now I dare to smile as I perform. Even if my act only lasts six minutes, I can really feel it in my arms. So this experience has certainly made me stronger (laughs).” Ricky: “The playing periods in contemporary circus are sporadic, while we always play for days in one place. We aren’t obliged to adapt each day to a new place or the weather, so it is possible to compare one days performance to the next, and determine which scenes went better or less well than the day before. That is the advantage of routine: you can continue to tweak a performance until it is just right.” At any rate, it wasn’t the intention for Katleen to create a new number or rework it to fit into the Wiener Circus. Ricky: “ Each year we take on some existing acts. At the same time, in January and February the circus doesn’t perform, so we can rehearse and freshen up some existing numbers with the permanent cast. Together this makes up our new program for the year.” Would it not have been more interesting to involve Katleen in that phase of the work, and have her create a new act together with some of the artists from the traditional circus? “I would certainly be open to that idea,” Katleen replies. “But that would imply a long-term contract. Now I am playing for five weeks with the Wiener Circus and for me that period could be longer, because I really enjoy it. But I could never tie myself for an entire year to a traveling circus. I chose for an artistic occupation out of a need for variation. No matter how you look at it, there is a huge amount of routine in the traditional circus. That said, I just enjoy performing too much, so I would certainly choose a stint in a traditional circus above a café job if I had a period with less work. I would also prefer playing with a traveling circus than doing my act in a variety theatre. People are warm here. You have to be kind to each other if you spend 24 hours a day together.”
The project “Young blood in the tent” is as much an apprenticeship for the traditional circus as it is for the contemporary artist. Ricky: “I think that technically we can learn a lot from Katleen. In a family circus the knowledge is passed on from generation to generation and there is more focus on strength than on technique.” Katleen agrees. “I think that the technical level of most acts could be higher. The glitter and that aspect of the show can also work as a sort of camouflage.” Ricky: “What we also noticed was how professional Katleen was. Often she would be warming up and hour and a half before the show, while most of our artists don’t do that.”
Is it really necessary for the worlds of nomadic and new circus to meet? Do both risk losing their identity in the exchange? Ricky: “When the situation isn’t forced, it can be a huge opportunity. At this moment we are scouting some young people from a circus school in Finland to join us eventually next season. It would be a good thing for students in the circus school to come and do a months practical experience with a nomadic circus. Not only would we benefit from their innovation, they would have a chance to see what they could expect were they to join a traditional traveling circus after their training.
An example: we once had people from a circus school who joined us with their trapeze act.
What did we discover? They didn’t even know how to hang their own trapeze, because at school they never had to do it themselves. Katleen: “When during my training at ACaPA (Academy for Circus and Performance Arts in Tilburg) I asked to do an internship with Twister Circus, that was certainly not discouraged by the directer. He came from a classic circus background himself and only encouraged that choice.”
Ricky believes the difference between the two circuits is one of style. “We bring the same sort of acts – juggling, acrobatics, humour – but the presentation is different. In contemporary circus there is more emphasis placed on the choreography and direction.” Katleen adds: “There is more of a search for the poetry or the meaning of the action. At Wiener Circus it’s the tempo and rhythm of the scenes that is the most important. Much less attention is placed on the transitions between the scenes.” Ricky: “With us, the enjoyment is the most important and we try to send our audience home with a good feeling.” I noticed during the final applause that Katleen seemed rather uncomfortable next to all the other beaming circus artists. Katleen: “Ha ha, you saw that? It’s because of the high heels that I wear during the closing parade. I lent them from Ricky’s wife, but I am afraid they are not very comfortable. (laugh). It’s not my intention to set myself apart from the others. But it’s also safe to say I am not the biggest show-beast of the group. I’m afraid I won’t be missing the jolly music of the last five weeks one little bit. (laughs)”
I ask Katleen how she feels about the unpredictable attendance one gets with a classic circus, since in circus festivals one is pretty much guaranteed a good turn-out. “I had to get used to that in the beginning. Sometimes you perform for a full house, sometimes for an audience of ten. Strangely enough, a small audience can help me focus better on my act. The sound of popcorn and hubbub can pull me out of my concentration, but I learned how to deal with that as well in the course of my stay here.” Ricky: “Each performance is equally important. The people who come have paid their money and want to see the best from the circus artists. Good promotion remains vital. Together with Katleen we hung up our signs and passed out flyers. Circumstances have a big effect on attendance as well. If the weather is cold or the Red Devils are playing football, then we notice the audience figures dip. But in general we cannot complain with Wiener Circus. In 2015 we will celebrate our 50th anniversary, and over all those years we have built up a steady audience in the difference cities and towns where we play. By the way, our biggest expense is not the salaries of the artists, but the rental of the space we pitch our tents, the maintenance of our vehicles, the insurance… As a good manager it’s also vitally important to put some funds away in the good times to get us through the leaner times. Our biggest competition is not the contemporary circus, but the foreign circuses of inferior quality who also tour here and spoil the image of the classic circus. We have to convince people of our quality, and a project like “Young blood in the tent” can only help us in that mission.”